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‘The White Card’ at Penumbra deals with race and racism

ALSO: Club Book season to include a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a climate advocate, and a writer of page-turning thrillers.

White Card
Bill McCallum and Lynette R. Freeman in "The White Card."
Photo by Caroline Yang

Just as Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” is not a traditional book of poetry, though it won several important poetry awards, her play “The White Card” is not a traditional play. If four out of five characters in a traditional play consistently said clueless, self-righteous, tone-deaf things, it would probably be a comedy about buffoons.

“The White Card” is not a comedy. It’s a serious look at racism and the lack of understanding among people who think they know better, who see themselves firmly on the right side of social justice. Directed by Talvin Wilks, it takes place on a transformed stage at the Penumbra. Some seats have been removed, the stage has been extended and the walls have been lengthened to embrace as much of the audience as possible. We’re all in this together.

As the play begins, it takes a minute to remember you’re in St. Paul’s historic black theater. The set is all white – floors, walls, furniture, accessories. So are the three people on stage: wealthy art collector Charles (Bill McCallum), his wife, Virginia (Michelle O’Neill), and art dealer Eric (John Catron). They await the arrival of the evening’s guest, Charlotte (Lynnette R. Freeman), an important black artist whose work Charles is eager to start collecting.

Charles’ collection focuses on what Charlotte will bluntly call “black death.” We see Robert Longo’s charcoal drawing of Ferguson police holding back protesters in the days after Michael Brown was shot. And Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “The Death of Michael Stewart,” a graffiti artist killed by police. And Glenn Ligon’s “Hands” from the 1995 Million Man March. Among them is a Rauschenberg “White Painting.” Panels of white.

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Charlotte arrives and the conversation begins. When Virginia insists that she and Charlotte have met before, at a gallery, Eric says “That wasn’t Charlotte.” The audience groans. There will be a lot of groaning and gasping during “The White Card.” As when Virginia says, “Charles takes his stable of artists seriously.” And tells Charlotte, who has risen to help clear the dinner plates, to “Sit down. You’re not the maid.” (The maid, who is black, has been given the night off.)

Before dinner, a fifth character enters: Charles and Virginia’s son Alex, fresh from an anti-Trump protest. A member of Black Lives Matter, he’s a wealth of knowledge about injustices past and present, eager to show how informed he is and one-up his parents.

Charlotte’s art at first seems like a good fit for Charles’ collection. She restages and photographs moments and aggressions that would otherwise be forgotten. Lately, her work has taken a darker turn. She’s staging the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting. This is the work Charles wants.

The evening unravels. Charlotte keeps her cool but also has doubts about Charles and his choices. As Alex helpfully points out, part of Charles’ wealth comes from building private prisons. When the first act ends, Charlotte is questioning her own choices about her art. The second act, which takes place a year later, reveals her new direction. It’s a shock to Charles.

We don’t want to spill all the twists because so much of the play is discussion. Voices rise, and the white characters hold tight to their own ideas and perceptions. As Rankine said in an opening night post-play talk with Wilks, author Junauda Petrus and writer Erin Sharkey, “There’s nothing in the play that has not actually happened in real life.” All of the dumb things the white characters say have been said in her presence or reported to her. “That they happen at the same time is fictional,” Rankine continued, “but there’s no fiction in the play.”

Sometimes “The White Card” seems stuck on a single note, played at the same volume. It’s impossible to become emotionally involved with any of the characters, except for Charlotte. But entertaining us or indulging our feelings is not what “The White Card” is for. Rankine is a MacArthur Fellow, respected scholar and cultural force who speaks and writes with candor. (In the post-play talk, when Petrus asked her, “How do you take care of yourself?” Rankine replied, “I have trained myself to say what I think in public.”)

“The White Card” brings us face-to-face with issues of race and racism. It’s not a comfortable place to be. Go, get uncomfortable, then think about what you see and hear. Talk with other people about it. Post-play discussions will be held on three Thursdays: Feb. 13, 20 and 27. If you can’t decide which night to attend, maybe pick one of those.

Performance dates are Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with student matinees on Wednesdays and matinees on the weekends. FMI and tickets ($40/$35 seniors/$15 students). Closes March 1.

Club Book spring 2020 lineup is announced

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, a climate advocate, and a writer of New York Times best-selling, page-turning thrillers will visit libraries all over the metro as part of the new Club Book season.

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A program of the Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA), Club Book is a consistently strong series of author events, all free and open to the public, all available as podcasts shortly after.

Choose a favorite author, or two, or four. Pick your nearest library or venture out to one you’ve never seen.

Here’s what the season has to offer. Times can vary slightly, so pay attention to that detail.

Gish Jen
Photo by Romana Vysatova
Gish Jen
Wednesday, March 4, at the Ramsey County Library – New Brighton: Gish Jen. Her latest, “The Resisters” (out Feb. 4), is a new direction for Jen, a second-generation Chinese-American whose past works, fiction and nonfiction, have considered emigration, assimilation, and multiculturalism. “The Resisters” is set in a dystopian future ravaged by climate change. 6:30-7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 10, at Scott County Library – Prior Lake: Brad Taylor. His latest Pike Logan thriller, “Hunter Killer,” came out in paperback on Jan. 7. The series centers around “the Taskforce,” an elite covert ops team. Taylor served more than two decades in the U.S. Army, including a stint with the Delta Force. 7-8 p.m.

Laila Lalami
April Rocha Photography
Laila Lalami
Tuesday, March 24, at the Hennepin County Library – Minneapolis Central: Laila Lalami. The Moroccan-American novelist uses fiction to shine a light on overlooked North African stories. “The Moor’s Account” (2014) won the American Book Award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. “The Other Americans,” one of the most anticipated releases of 2019, comes out in paperback on March 17. 7-8 p.m.

Thursday, March 26, at the Washington County Library – R.H. Stafford: James Rollins. The fiendishly prolific Rollins writes under his own name and a pen name (James Clemens). He’s best known for his #1 New York Times best-selling Sigma Force series – more than 20 million copies in print, in nearly 40 languages. “The Last Odyssey” hits shelves March 24. 6:30-7:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 9, at the Metropolitan State University Library and Learning Center, co-hosted with Saint Paul Public Library: Dahr Jamail. A climate advocate, former wartime correspondent in Iraq and passionate mountaineer, Jamail is the author of “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption,” due out in paperback on March 10. 7-8 p.m.

Wednesday, April 22, at the Dakota County Library – Galaxie: Kate Quinn. She’s written best-sellers set in Rome, the Renaissance and the French Revolution. Now she’s into the two World Wars. “The Huntress,” the follow-up to “The Alice Network” (2017), was a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick and an instant New York Times best-seller. 7-8 p.m.

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Monday, April 27, at the Carver County Library – Chanhassen: Christopher Ingraham. Four years ago, the WaPo reporter called Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, “America’s worst place to live.” He later moved there with his family. His latest is “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now.” 6:30-7:30 p.m.

Monday, May 4, at Anoka County Library – Northtown: Benjamin Percy. Born in Oregon, now based in Minnesota, Percy writes novels (“The Wilding,” “The Dark Net”), short stories, essays, comics (“X-Men,” “Green Arrow”), and podcasts. Most recently, “Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction” and the short story collection “Suicide Woods.” 7-8 p.m.